Sweet, sugary globs of ice cream are hard to eat in moderation. You may find yourself taking follow-up licks even before you’ve swallowed the previous one. We aren’t here to judge you — only to inform you, specifically about the nightmarish brain freezes that result when the power of the ice cream consumes us.
Our brains would like to keep themselves (and, indeed, our selves) alive. Anyone who’s played the dutiful role of overzealous ice cream eater, or, more generally, has consumed a cold food or beverage too quickly, knows that being overeager leads to a splitting headache for a period of several seconds. Though it feels like an eternity, the feeling soon subsides. What’s going on up there? Why should our brain try to stop us from enjoying our delicious frozen treat?
Well, the short answer is that the brain isn’t evolved enough to know it won’t die from cold exposure. So it enters a sort of lockdown mode. When temperature signals to the brain reach dangerous levels (as far as the brain’s concerned), it marshals surrounding red blood cells and widens the nearby anterior cerebral artery in an effort to keep itself warm. The added pressure, however, also causes the characteristic pain.
A 2012 study discovered this mechanism full and clear. "The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time," explained lead author, Jorge Serrador, of Harvard Medical School. We, however, believe it can wait five minutes while we inhale our soft serve vanilla chocolate twist in a waffle cone.